22 Apr 2013

Divisions run deep over media freedom in Fiji

4:58 pm on 22 April 2013

Discussions on media freedom at the just-completed Pacific Parliamentary and Political Leaders Forum in Wellington have highlighted deep divisions in Fiji media.

Ever since Fiji's military took over government following the 2006 coup, the country's media has been increasingly restricted, with the latest regulations meaning media operators face jail terms of up to five years for referring to sidelined political parties among other sensitivities.

Johnny Blades reports:

Fiji's government insists it supports media freedom but has cautioned that it won't tolerate what it calls misreporting or media coverage which fuels racial division.

But in its 2013 global report, Reporters without Borders says that Fiji journalists still operate under a media decree which imposes the threat of heavy fines or imprisonment as in the case of a recently convicted editor of the Fiji Times.

However Tura Lewai of the Young People's Concerned Network told delegates at the Wellington forum that media in Fiji is gagged by the point of a gun.

"We need media people in Fiji that are brave people, that will hold our government accountable and also push them to be transparent. We have in Fiji a situation where the government of the day controls what is being printed up in the media."

His comment was an affront to a fellow delegate, Matai Akauola who is the industry representative on Fiji's government-appointed Media Industry Development Authority.

He says the talk of bravery is misguided.

For us, we don't have an elected government, so what do we do? Do we stay out or do we engage? So if we didn't engage for the last six years, we would be lost. But in terms of engaging, we are in. And for us, the key thing is the safety of the journalists first. A lot of times we talk about media freedom and all this, but to me the crux of it is the safety of my journalists. If someone is being taken in or whatever, I am there to call up the authorities and say hey, because I know the guys, can you release this person?

The General Secretary of the Fiji National Council of Women, Fay Volatabu, says the Fiji Media Decree must be removed if the country is to return to democracy.

And at this point in time, we would also like to have more media freedom. Everything is censored in the newsrooms and in all media outlets so if we had to ask for a wish, that would be my first wish, make sure that all these media bans are taken off, that there is no more censorship in our media rooms.

However Mr Akauola, who is also Manager and Training Coordinator at the Pacific Islands News Association, says the industry must abide by the military government's media rules in the interests of the long-term path back to democracy.

They are moving towards democracy which is good so for us it's not the time to derail the process. But for now we need to continue to engage and get our views in because if not, you'll have other people who do not know anything about the media and they will sort of put draconian rules in place that is more or less keeping us out of it in totality.

The government lifted official placement of media censors from newsrooms last year, but self-censorship remains pervasive and few media outlets seem willing to scrutinise the government's actions.